Warmth, elegance in Nashua

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January 13, 2008

Saffron Bistro

80 Main St., Nashua
Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday
Major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped

It's a joy to reconnect with an old friend at an elegant restaurant on a snowy evening. When we arrived for our 7:15 p.m. reservation at the Saffron Bistro on a recent Friday, we were greeted warmly just before we were led to a table near the front window and the server pulled out our chairs.

The foul weather had compelled us to wear jeans and sensible shoes. While casual dress is acceptable at the Saffron Bistro, dressy attire would have been more in keeping with the atmosphere. There was a small crystal vase with a red rose on each linen-covered table. Gold-framed mirrors and paintings graced the muted yellow walls.

The acoustics were superb, as we could watch passersby on Nashua's main drag, without hearing the cars or pedestrians. There was also a large table next to us with a big party and the strains of a live jazz piano across the room, yet we conversed easily.

A series of classy touches surprised us throughout our meal. First, the waiter asked whether plain water would suffice. Moments later, he returned with a gratis appetizer to whet our appetites - two cucumber rings filled with a mélange of duck, kalamata olives, and finely diced tomato. (When I mentioned that I couldn't quite identify the seasonings, our waiter made a point of finding out and reporting back to us later: They were cilantro with mango spice.)

My companion asked if the waiter could recommend a red wine that would be suitable with most of the entrees. He recommended a petite sirah ($8) from the Fleur de California winery, and my friend came to agree with his choice.

The menu fits on a single page, and each item appears to have been selected with great care. My eyes homed in on the panko-crusted lobster tail ($15), delicately breaded and fried oh-so-lightly, on a bed of crisp cucumber salad, harissa aioli, and black-truffle shavings. I can't imagine any way to improve on this tasty dish.

My companion ordered the goat cheese tartelette ($10). The base of this appetizer was a generous toasted pastry shell, encasing creamy herb-whipped goat cheese topped by roasted tomatoes, eggplant caviar, basil coulis, and fresh frisée salad. She noted that roasted tomatoes were a better choice than fresh would have been, as a bolder contrast to the subtle cheese, without overpowering the other ingredients.

We were pleased by the warm Asiago cheese rolls that our waiter provided using tongs from a basket, accompanied by a swirl of herb butter.

The overall pacing of the meal was leisurely, so we asked the server a few details about the establishment itself. The location was chosen in part because the owners are from Nashua. The bistro has been open for six months, in a building that used to contain the Harbor House homeless shelter.

It amazed us to learn that there were only three chefs in the kitchen, providing meals for up to 60 patrons. There are also no specials on any given night. Rather, the menu is changed every four to six weeks.

For the main course, I opted for the Australian rack of lamb ($28), which the waiter said was his favorite item. Two portions of four chops each were roasted in a piquant coating of tarragon mustard vinaigrette. The meat was accompanied by layers of sweet and russet potatoes au gratin, along with bright green and slightly bitter sautéed broccoli rabe. I was barely able to finish two of the chops, much to the delight of my teenager back home, who fairly inhaled the leftovers.

My companion ordered the caramelized local sea scallops ($24). Six plump scallops were placed evenly around a bed of creamy risotto, garnished with pea tendrils and roasted tomato aioli. A moat of orange sauce circled the edges of this entrée. The tops of the scallops were seared evenly to a golden brown, while retaining incredible tenderness.

We couldn't resist sampling the desserts. I chose the pumpkin eggnog crème brû·lée ($8) and was thrilled with the smooth consistency and holiday flavorings. The top had been gently toasted to form a paper-thin crust, sprinkled with powdered sugar and punctuated by almond tuile (a crisp sugary cookie), and a sprig of fresh mint. Decorative splashes of red raspberry coulis had been meticulously spaced along one edge of the dish. The first half of this cool treat was delicious, though the sugary crust eventually proved too sweet for my taste.

My companion ordered the poached pear in brandy ($8), coated in a dark brown glaze. The pear was firm yet cooked, imbued with cinnamon flavor. The platter included a small cup of vanilla-bean ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream.


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